A month and a half ago, fan-favorite developer Twisted Pixel announced their latest title, The Gunstringer, an on-rails cowboy shoot-em-up designed exclusively for Microsoft Kinect.
At the time, many of us wondered if, in spite of The Gunstringer's light-hearted tone, the game might be the closest thing to a hardcore experience on Kinect - as the peripheral is dangerously close to having the same Wii-like reputation of mostly low-cost third party shovel-ware offerings.
Xbox 360 fans that were eagerly looking to The Gunstringer as a potential proof-of-concept for Kinect's ability to deliver first-rate shooting controls - without a controller - will be sad to hear that while the upcoming title is certainly charming and fun to play, it's more Time Crisis than Gears of War 3. Limited mobility, fixed positioning, and the typical Kinect lag-time prevent Twisted Pixel's latest title from being anything revolutionary - but that doesn't mean that it isn't extremely entertaining.
There's nothing wrong with a great on-rails shooter and given The Gunstringer's easy, and intuitive, control scheme, the title is poised to be one of the premiere experiences en route for Kinect. If you're unfamiliar with the basic game details, Gunstringer is a marionette/skeleton cowboy on the trail of revenge - shooting his way through bandits, stage-coaches, and a number of, in typical Twisted Pixel fashion, hilarious boss enemies. The game will also serve as the first XBLA title designed for Kinect.
As mentioned, Gunstringer is essentially an on-rails 3-D experience (though it's still unclear how the 2-D platforming portions of the game will control): players use their left hand to control the character on the horizontal axis, allowing for small adjustments on the march forward (avoiding rocks or incoming crossfire - and leaning out of cover), a quick flick up of the left hand also controls the vertical axis - sending Gunstringer leaping over obstacles.
The right hand controls the reticule. Like many other Kinect titles dragging the cross-hair across the screen highlights up to six destructible objects and/or enemies - a quick upward snap of the right wrist commands Gunstringer to shoot. The character will fire on any highlighted enemy, assuming he or she is still within the field of view. The physical lock-on/fire mechanics are extremely satisfying and, based on the time we spent with the title, make it hard to imagine the game would get repetitive - in spite of the simple contr0l-scheme.
That said, the pre-release build here at PAX East didn't pause gameplay if Kinect had trouble tracking the player's frame. Instead, a body outline would flash in the upper right corner (indicating that Kinect had lost track of the player) but gameplay would continue, with Gunstringer uncontrollably marching into obstacles and taking damage - until the player put their hands down for a rescan. Only then would the game pause to get everything sync'd up again. It's not a deal-breaker (even if the problem persists into the final build) but, at times, it felt unfair (and punishing) for a problem on the hardware end.
Twisted Pixel is known for humor and there's no doubt the team brought their a-game with The Gunstringer. Human hands appear on-screen dropping obstacles and other props in the character's path, a tongue-in-cheek Western narrator comments on the action, and a live studio audience re-acts to Gunstringer's in-game success and failures. Additionally the boss-character design, which includes a dastardly inflatable dancing balloon (as well as what appears to be a miniature Japanese sensei), are hilarious - and offer unique and varied gameplay experiences.
The Gunstringer may not be the hardcore/casual shooter hybrid some Xbox 360 gamers had been hoping for - but there's no question the game offers a quality, albeit limited, shooting gallery experience that takes full advantage of the Kinect experience as well as Twisted Pixel's sense of humor.
Look for The Gunstringer in Fall 2011 as an Xbox Live Arcade title.